Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Teaching Tip: Writing as a Study Tool

Good class discussions begin with good preparation by students outside of class. But the evidence that students have read the assignment is often disappointingly spotty, even when they have done so.

Better discussions might begin with changing what students do outside of class to prepare. Surveys show that students spend shockingly few hours preparing each week. When they do, they often employ superficial methods for remembering, such as highlighting, as opposed to taking reading notes. Some of us have had teachers who assigned scavenger-hunt-style reading questions to ensure that we read assignments carefully. Such reading questions are often crafted to encourage re-reading and synthetic thinking.

Another strategy to increase student interaction with the readings is to assign frequent, short, low-stakes writing assignments. Students often feel more comfortable speaking about something after they’ve written about it. Perhaps that’s because writing assignments that ask students to summarize, contextualize and ask thoughtful questions about reading assignments improve comprehension and retention. They can help us spend less time on coverage and more time on what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design call “uncoverage,” that is, a more narrow classroom focus leading to deeper analyses.

We recommend that these writing assignments be treated as opportunities for discovery more than means of policing. Low-stakes writing assignments, required but not a significant part of the course grade, give students the freedom to take risks that they might otherwise shy from, and help keep us from feeling overwhelmed with grading.

We know many of you use low-stakes writing assignments to build toward more formal assignments, which students seem to appreciate. We’d love to hear what sort of out-of-class preparations you use to promote participation. Send us your thoughts!

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